FRAME and GAZE

The constructed nature of visual media has been rendered highly visible during the twentieth century, particularly with the advent and ascendance of still photography, moving pictures, and digital imaging capabilities.  Each of these media has dramatically altered the possible contexts of visual media, and generated new paradigms of visuality.  While theoretical frameworks for analyzing the significance of frame and gaze as conceptual tools of visual analysis predate the modern period, the terms themselves have acquired additional importance, and become much more widely disseminated with the development and refinement of the camera and the computer as tools of image production. 

The activities, questions and resources below will focus primarily on the multiple dimensions of framing a visual image, and on the notion of gaze as a critical component in the interpretation of visual images. While these terms remain integral components of film analysis, they also enable nuanced and insightful analysis of visual images across a much wider array of media.  A partial list includes photographs, painting, sculpture as well as many forms of print media (illustrations, advertisements, lithographs etc.).  Asking questions about how visual media are framed and how gaze operates in the visual field between viewer and object focuses attention on what is and what is not seen in the visual interaction.  These questions indicate or create key relationships.

Frame/Framing

Visual images contain a wealth of information, much of which the viewer processes unconsciously.  The impulse to read the visual unconsciously, without delineating its constructive elements, remains embedded in contemporary discourses of the visual as traces of pre-twentieth discourses that privileged textual forms of knowledge over the visual.  Therefore, conscious attempts to contextualize and analyze the visual object enhance viewer interaction, interpretation and understanding. Attentive analysis to the formal design elements, the narrative content, and the context of presentation yields complex layers of understanding about a visual image or object.  Noting how an image or object is framed enhances the contextual knowledge available to the viewer.

Framing includes both (1) the literal presentation and/or representation of an image or object in physical space, and (2) the accompanying interpretative markers a viewer both perceives and generates. To frame something then, on the literal level, is to give it a physical presence of some kind.  Framing in this sense refers to the material presentation or representation of an object or image, and to the actual boundaries that function not only to enclose and contain the object but also to reveal it to us in a certain way. Quite distinct from this physical framing of an image, but related to it, and equally important in analyzing how a visual object is framed, is the information provided with or about an object or image.  This aspect of framing influences the way in which we develop a specific interpretative meaning for the object or image, that is, it frames our conceptual understanding of the object.  However, this is never a passive process, even when it is most unconsciously done.  The range of previous experience and social, cultural and political knowledge a viewer brings to the interaction with a visual object or image will influence the way in which s/he processes information and constructs meaning from her/his interaction with it. Accordingly, while many viewers may be engaged with the same media interaction (whether it is film, video game, website, museum exhibition, graphic novel etc.), individual viewer response will mediate and impact the meanings attributed to the visual image or object and the resulting interpretations generated by the viewer. 

The two images of American Gothic (http://www.humanities.umd.edu/vislit/exercises/images.html) are physically framed as digitally produced online images.  How the viewer will see them displayed will depend in part on the quality of the computer monitor.  Unless the viewer brings specific pre-existing knowledge, the framing of American Gothic as an online image does not make the viewer aware of this (or other) aspect of image presentation.  Nor is s/he given information relative to the actual object being digitally reproduced, including for example, its original size. (This is also often true of the framing of visual images and objects that are not in a digital format.  In most cases, the framing elements of objects such as oil paintings, etchings, or steel sculpture reveal equally slim information about modes of production.)   

Equally important to the framing context of the two images titled American Gothic however, is the interpretative framing of the images. For example, the way in which we think about these two images is framed by the fact that they are being displayed together. Because they are displayed together and because they have identical titles, the viewer may imagine that the separate narratives about each image may be partially overlapping.  Just as no additional production information is contained in this framing of American Gothic, little interpretative information accompanies these images aside from the titles given, and the fact that they are displayed together.

Gaze

Despite the importance of viewer response to interpretative modes of framing an image, how a visual object or image is framed depends primarily upon decisions made by someone other than a viewer.  The viewer, however, plays a significant role in constructing meaning about an object or image.  Even when viewers are accessing an image with the same framing information, such as when viewing the two images titled American Gothic, (link) each viewer bring her/his own gaze to the making meaning aspects of visual interpretation.  The gaze of the viewer brings their own store of information and experience to bear in their recognition and perception of the visual elements that make up an image. The range of previous experience and social, cultural and political knowledge a viewer brings to the interaction with a visual object or image will influence the way in which s/he processes information and constructs meaning from her/his interaction with it. It may lead different viewers to produce different narratives and to construct different sets of meanings for the object or image in question.  This awareness of the way in which gaze engages with viewer identities and difference has been an important source of feminist theorizing about gender and gaze.  Drawing upon the work of Jacques Lacan and others, feminists articulated the encoding of male desire into visual production.  Gaze continues to be an important analytical category in cultural studies and related inter-disciplinary projects. 

Gaze as a mode of visual analysis implies a two-way relationship – that is someone to gaze and someone to gaze back.  The viewer draws information and conclusions about the image based on how her/his gaze into the visual image or object is returned.  How can an image or object return the gaze of the viewer? It does so semiotically, that is, by returning information and meaning to the viewer.  David Chandler reminds us of the multiple gazes, or ways of looking that may simultaneously inform the visual experience:
“James Elkins offers ten different ways of looking at a figurative painting in a gallery (Elkins 1996, 38-9):

  1. You, looking at the painting,
  2. figures in the painting who look out at you,
  3. figures in the painting who look at one another, and
  4. figures in the painting who look at objects or stare off into space or have their eyes closed. In addition there is often
  5. the museum guard, who may be looking at the back of your head, and
  6. the other people in the gallery, who may be looking at you or at the painting. There are imaginary observers, too:
  7. the artist, who was once looking at this painting,
  8. the models for the figures in the painting, who may once have seen themselves there, and
  9. all the other people who have seen the painting - the buyers, the museum officials, and so forth. And finally, there are also
  10. people who have never seen the painting: they may know it only from reproductions... or  from descriptions.” 

Taken from Notes on the Gaze: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze02.html
Just as there are multiple and simultaneous ways of looking at and seeing visual images and objects, there are also multiple types of gaze.  A gaze can be directed at and accomplish many different purposes, including the following. Note, however, that this is only a partial list. 

  1. The gaze may be direct or indirect; there may be more than one set of gazes operative and they may be some combination of direct and indirect
  2. A gaze may be one that that is mutual and reciprocal (implying an equal relationship) or one that establishes a hierarchical relationship (implying a power differential between the participants of the gaze)
  3. Either the viewer or the object being viewed by acknowledge the other with an active, watching gaze, or either or both parties may not so engage
  4. Depending on the framing of the visual image, the gaze it cultivates to engage the viewer may or may not reflect the intentional gaze of the artist/producer t
  5. A gaze may also bring encoded meaning, deliberatively incorporated by the artist/producer to the viewer’s engagement with the visual object
  6. The gaze of the viewer may be conscious or unconsciously engaged in decoding the visual image or visual object

Gaze, then, must be regarded as a co-constitutional relationship that refuses to allow our interactions with images to remain neutral or objective. A more in-depth discussion of the concept of gaze at work in a visual image or object can be read here:  http://www.chicagoschoolmediatheory.net/glossary2004/eyegaze.htm 

Exercises
Resources
Questions

(Consult Bank of Questions for additional relavant questions.)